By Bill Herzog
Steelheading brings on many emotions- pure joy, anticipation, frustration, wonder, disappointment for sure. But anger, now, that should never manifest itself at any time during an anglers’ day.
Unfortunately, most of my days after wandering the banks of my beloved Olympic Peninsula winter rivers the last half dozen winter seasons have ended with an angry me storming back to the car, smoke tooting out of my ears, compound expletives seeping through grinding teeth all the way home.
Why would anyone feel this way, doing what they love? Well, we have to look at the last 25 years to answer that question.
You see, since the inception of catch and release circa 1980, several of us out of the box thinkers sampled these new, artificial lure only fisheries in our backyard streams – the Sauk, Skagit and Skykomish rivers. We were all aware of the bounty Olympic Peninsula rivers offered, but hey, our local streams had tremendous fishing for both gear and fly anglers, dare I say world class for late, bright, powerful and some very large wild winter/spring steelhead. Hundreds of us planned vacations during March and April to take part. A few of us, like myself, became guides on these rivers to take advantage of the bounty and to just be on our favorite waters during prime times.
The 80’s through the mid-90’s were sublime. If you were privileged like I was to sit around the campfire in early April up at Howard Miller Steelhead Park on the Skagit, the entire roster of some of the greatest steelheaders to grace our planet were there. I used to just sit, mouth shut and ears wide open and soak in the tales of Jimmy Green, Bob York, Harry Lemire, Phil Lund, Dec Hogan, John Farrar, Pete Soverel, and Sean Gallagher. Being at ground zero for the first building of home-made Skagit lines. Watching Canadian Jerry Wintle buzz up the big water in his 12-foot aluminum car topper with a tiny prop outboard. Listening to the greats holler at each other across the campground, “Are you on the board?” which meant if they had found a Skagit steelhead yet on their swung flies. Just one. That’s how special those steelhead were.
Late 90’s, early 2000’s saw an unexpended plummet in the runs. The Skagit and Skykomish systems were not making minimum escapement. This created emergency, eventual ESA-listing and ultimately, closures of our beloved waters. All these anglers, exiled and empty, now must face a decision that started this whole mess…to find open water to pursue wild, late native steelhead, or golf.
Fly fishers, plug pullers, spoon swingers, we all had to go West.
Not only the orphaned Skagit and Skykomish faithful were banished, the closures of the Puyallup, Green, Nisqually, Nooksack and Stillaguamish…those lads and lassies had to go somewhere to fish. To the Peninsula they went.
And now the real mess manifests.
The runs on the OP are nowhere near the numbers during the steelheading heydays, but blanket closures of Puget Sound rivers combined with a perfect storm of Internet and magazine articles around the same time made the OP more attractive than ever. Every season, the crowds grew exponentially. No one group is exempt from the crowding blame game.
Many argue that catch and release alleviates all crowding problems. Catch and release, while it does help, is only a management tool.
With no maximum number of encounters (hookups) per angler, we may keep on (legally) hot lipping steelhead to hearts desire.
And as long as fishing from boats is allowed, there is nearly zero sanctuary for fish. Handling steelhead, no matter how careful we are, ups the ante for mortality. Fly, drift gear, bait, pink worm, spoon, quite frankly no technique is less impactful than the other as long as all anglers have access to every single square foot of water. Unless there are areas of the river where steelhead may find sanctuary, crowding can create poor fishing in little time, not to mention the increased negative effect of hooking nearly every fish in the system and what that does to spawning efficiency.
Let’s be real, we need unpressured fish for quality angling. The way to ensure aggressive steelhead for daily angling pressure is to create sanctuary and reduce hookups.
This means doing what we can to reduce encounters, which includes no fishing from a floating device in some places, transportation only.
Will fishing from boats fade away like the Okie Drifter? No, and there are areas of rivers that should allow boat fishing, for those less able and sections with poor or limited bank opportunities. At least a few rivers must be designated for boat transport only. Good old rotational fishing from the shore will allow many more anglers to fish without crossing into others water, like boaters drifting through while fishing in front of bankies. This type of behavior has created tremendous tension among anglers on the Peninsula. We can do better. Better ethics, better quality experience.
Let me relate one personal experience from last April on the lower Bogachiel. This section of river from Wilson access to Leyendeckers has become the darling of the long rodder. Whereas five years ago you could expect to find any portion of the lower Bogey open and unfished, now every run and riffle is plugged with bank anglers and boaters, either side drifting with fly rod/indicators, bait or jigs from daylight till dusk. My partner and I emerged from the trees after a mile hike in the dark, to my amazement there was no one yet in the fabulous Eagle Drift. As I stepped in the upper riffle, a glance upriver confirmed my dark thoughts, there were flashlights all over the bars, raft and drift boats popping into view like bees out of a hive. Five casts into the growing light a crunching grab and ten-minute drag melter produced the largest hen I’ve ever caught in Washington on a swung fly- all of 17 or 18 pounds, dark blue, silver and white, tailed lice on her rear, a mere blip from the ocean. No sooner was the fish unhooked than four boats drug their offerings right in front of me…then rowed up to the head of the hole and did it again. And again. Fellow fly anglers, indicator fishing from their boats, were corking my water.
Looked upriver, more boats, all spots on the bank, full. Downstream, more boats occupying the water. We had nowhere to fish, so we reeled up and left. Driving all the way from Tacoma, a hundred dollars in gas, and I made five casts. I should have been ecstatic about my great fish, instead I left in an angry huff, vowing never to do this again. Is that how we are supposed to feel after landing a fish like that?
Make those anglers pull over and share the water, I still get to fish, everyone gets a fair shot while rotating through the water, and I drive home grinning and giggling.
Is there a solution that makes all anglers satisfied? No. That ship has sailed. The answer is not to exclude gear or fly fishermen, simply to limit the impact on each system. We need to set aside a chosen few, those rivers featuring classic water and shore fishing opportunity, like the lower Bogachiel in March and April or the entire, magnificent Hoh (that currently is being loved to death) from park line to mouth. Especially the Hoh.
It would also take a massive chunk of pressure off the OP rivers in the late season if somehow, someway get can get the Skagit River spring fishery back. Imagine the opportunity to see the Skagit at Rockport in April again. The numbers support an opener, even if we may fish only under very strict regulations. Think that way overdue re-opener may stir some interest and take a bit of pressure off the west end? But, we also need to realize that opening such a fishery will require regulations in order to govern ourselves, to ensure a quality chance at steelhead.
I will still travel to the west-end, I will share the water to the best of my abilities. Myself and a half dozen close steelheaders have dutifully resolved to fish from the bank only…we won’t be a part of the problem. Until regulations change, at least in a small way for a few rivers and sections, I’m afraid emotional status quo for all real anglers after their day on crowded, un regulated water is, well….
Bill Herzog is one of the finest steelhead anglers and writers of our generation, and probably any generation. While known as the “Metal God” for his unmatched skills fishing hardware, Bill has fished all types of gear – from bait to fly – and is interested in being part of the change he thinks is necessary to ensure the future of our steelhead fisheries on the Olympic Peninsula.